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Bill Thayer

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Most of what you see here dates to a complete rebuilding of the church in the 12c.

Cosmedin and Cosmatesque: two words that are only coincidentally related, but ultimately they both mean beautiful.

Once this church was called S. Maria in Schola Graeca, which related to the flourishing Greek community in the immediate neighborhood. Its present name is of uncertain origin, which means that scholars disagree about it: maybe the most plausible theory is that our church, with a couple of other Italian churches founded by Byzantine Greeks fleeing from the iconoclastic persecutions of the 8c, was named after the Cosmidion monastery in Constantinople, whose name in turn appears to have something to do with its beautiful decoration, ultimately from κόσμος, beautiful.

Cosmatesque work, on the other hand, the intricate marquetry of thin slices of stone salvaged from ancient monuments, has nothing to do with this whatsoever: it derives its name from a family of artists who perfected the technique, descendants of the man who probably invented it, Lorenzo Cosmati (1140‑1210). In turn, his name ultimately derives, as far as can be reasonably conjectured, from that of St. Cosmas, a Greek doctor whose cult was widespread in Late Antiquity: and the good doctor's given name was not an uncommon one; what more natural than that parents should think their baby κόσμος, beautiful?

Here are the motifs from some of the oblong slabs of Cosmatesque you saw in the main photo above; each one opens to show you the complete rectangle: in the second one the blue pen is exactly 14 cm long and provides scale.

The materials are leftover stone from the monuments of Roman antiquity still strewn over the urban landscape of Rome in the Middle Ages. While most ancient limestone and soft marble had cracked, burned, or been intentionally turned into quicklime for cemeteries or plastering houses, harder stones, such as the material of broken columns that no longer supported their temple or palace — what use were they? Sliced into thin pieces and assembled in geometric patterns, this waste material became the characteristic decoration of the richer churches of Italy.

The most prominent types of stone are porphyry (purple), serpentine (green), and giallo antico (orange). Look closely at those full‑size photos, and you will notice that the harder porphyry and serpentine have worn far less, and the bits of softer whiter marble have worn more: so that after a few centuries we have a raised pattern.

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Page updated: 31 Oct 17